In 1951 a charmingly cute and quirky musician had a great idea. Why not televise weekly concerts of his popular band? Through the magic of broadcast television, it would be just like having a front row seat at every live show.
And so the Lawrence Welk Show was born.
It was a bad show, but it wasn’t a bad idea. Lawrence Welk already had a large following. He regularly invited other artists on the show to leverage their fans into his fan base. And he did improve on the original concept, making good use of this nascent medium by adding regular segments and eventually broadcasting in color. Take the same concept, substitute Bieber or Beyoncé, and you might have a smash hit.
It wasn’t hard to convince ABC executives that migrating the tried-and-true musical radio hour format to television (with a few tweaks) would attract top advertising dollars. And it did, which is why it stayed on the air. The Lawrence Welk Show wasn’t particularly compelling. It did nothing to advance the television arts and sciences or provide audience with inspiring content. But it was a very good earner.
About the same time, a brilliant and established television writer was pitching everyone in Hollywood on his TV show idea. First and foremost, it was a show with a moral. A scripted serial drama that addressed (in allegory) the ugly sides of human nature. It didn’t fit neatly in one box. Instead it crossed genres from horror and psychological thriller, to science fiction and suspense.
The first version of the show’s script was sold, then shelved for years. Eventually the pilot was made. The day after it aired, CBS receive 6000 letters…from delighted viewers and unanimous praise from critics.
And so The Twilight Zone was born.
Rod Serling was also iterating on a tried-and-true radio format. However, filmed in black in white when Technicolor was new, with flimsy sets, primitive SFX, unfortunate prosthetic makeup, and a tight budget, The Twilight Zone is high-concept and intellectual…which in Hollywood terms means it has all the makings of a terrible show. Yet even through our lens of 21st century sophistication, it’s easy to overlook the low production value. We forgive and get sucked in because the narrative format is so well-suited to the medium. (Also because the plots were demonstrative of damn good writing).
So two TV shows running concurrently couldn’t have been more different. One was provocative, edgy and took an old format to a new level. The other, was a pretty good idea and a bubble machine.
But the Lawrence Welk show stayed on the air for over 30 years, and set a precedence for the decades of musical variety shows that followed. The Twilight Zone was only produced for 5 seasons, and almost all of the 156 episodes have withstood the test of time.
What does this have to do with VR? For VR creators, it’s 1951 all over again. It’s the birth of a new era of storytelling. Only a small percentage of the population owns the hardware needed to view our content. But because of Moore’s law, our version of 1960 –when television penetration hit 90% — won’t take 9 years to happen. VR will likely get there by 2018.
With so little time to spare, who do you want to be? Lawrence Welk or Rod Serling?
What is your next contribution to the early canon of VR content? Is the next title in the production queue there because it’s a cool idea? Because it’s commercial? Because it’s so obviously suited for a 360° environment? History shows those are all a recipe for banality.
Old formats aren’t bad places to start, but in any new medium, they need to be taken to the next level. Lawrence Welk assumed that the new format was the next level. Rod Serling pushed past the constraints of the time and created truly classic content.
As VR creators, we are so lucky that we don’t need the stamp of approval from a dull-witted, near-sighted network executive to get our content into millions of homes.
So what will it be? Wonderful bubbles and accordions? Or travels through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination?
PS. Which was your favorite Twilight Zone? Mine’s called Queen of the Nile & I found the full episode here on Hulu. Enjoy!